A joint prosecution unit of the Ramsey County attorney's office and the St. Paul city attorney's office will start working on more of the county's worst cases, where violent offenders are considered at-risk to kill or victims are particularly vulnerable.
The Joint Prosecution Unit formed in 2000 to focus on domestic abuse cases involving children, and was recently renamed the Joint Special Victims Unit to reflect a broadening of its scope.
Attorneys in the unit will start prosecuting cases involving sex trafficking, physical or sexual abuse of the elderly, and sexual assaults of vulnerable adults. Such cases have always been prosecuted, but Ramsey County Attorney John Choi and City Attorney Sara Grewing said funneling them through the unit streamlines prosecution and improves the likelihood of filing felony charges instead of lower-level misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor charges.
Advocates with the St. Paul Domestic Abuse Intervention Project said the original unit noticeably improved victims' experiences with the criminal justice system. Shelley Johnson Cline, the organization's executive director, is hopeful its latest evolution will make even more of a difference.
"It's going to have a huge impact on people's safety, and I really do think violent offenders will be held accountable," Johnson said. "People won't fall through the cracks."
Key aspects of the unit, staffed by two attorneys each from the county and city attorney's office, include: keeping one attorney on a case throughout its progression in court, maintaining more manageable caseloads per attorney (about 10 cases at a time), connecting with advocates and resources such as Cline's group, and keeping better track of an offender's history to aide in prosecution.
The county's Victim/Witness Services Division will also play a key role. The Ramsey County Board of Commissioners voted in March to add a part-time victim advocate to the unit.
"We're doing victim contact earlier and more frequently," said Assistant City Attorney Tara Patet, who prosecutes vulnerable adult cases.
Statistics provided by Choi's office show that the unit has increased the number of felony charges filed against perpetrators who may have otherwise faced misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor charges. In 2000, when the unit was formed by then-County Attorney Susan Gaertner and then-City Attorney Clayton Robinson, 72 defendants faced the lower-level charges compared to 29 charged with felonies. In 2013, the unit charged 223 felonies and 53 misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors.
Assistant City Attorney Tamara Larsen, who works in the unit, said those felony charges were made possible because the unit focuses on working closely with victims and law enforcement, building more evidence and better assessing a case's "lethality," or, the victim's risk of death.
"It results in stronger cases," Larsen said.
Not all cases that fit under the unit's auspices will necessarily be funneled to those attorneys. Choi said some cases, like last year's prosecution of four men in a wide-ranging, yearslong sex-trafficking ring, will still be charged through regular channels, partly due to their size or other issues.